When Yoli Origel found out she may have cancer, the first question out of her mouth was, "Oh my gosh. Am I going to die like my mom?" 21 years earlier, when Yoli was just ten years old, her mother passed away from cancer and thoughts of suffering the same fate ran through her head. But now 14 years later she's still surviving and thriving and using what she's learned and overcome to help others battling the same thing.
Yoli's life mission is to support newly diagnosed cancer patients and survivors through programs and services offered by her organization, Cancer Kinship. I met her just a few months ago and have come to learn that she has an enthusiasm for life that's palpable. On this episode of Overcome With Auntie Anne, I talk with Yoli about her "cancer storm," the way it's played out in her family, and the impact it's made on her throughout the years. You don't want to miss it!
To hear the entire interview, listen to the podcast, or keep reading below to catch the highlights.
One Thanksgiving Day, with the turkey in the oven and family scheduled to come over, Yoli was getting out of the shower and felt a sharp pain in her left breast. She immediately put her hand there, felt something, and "knew in [her] heart that it was cancer."
She's thankful that her body "screamed" at her with the pain and that she was able to feel the lump. If not for that, the cancer could have been farther along by the time it was found. But it was Thanksgiving Day, her favorite holiday and her brother's birthday, and she knew she couldn't do anything about it.
So she kept it inside and didn't allow herself to enter into a sad or fearful state. Instead, she "turned it off," an ability we humans have, though she admits that's not always the healthiest of options. But on one of the biggest holidays of the year, it seemed like the right idea.
"I chose, and I use that word strongly I chose to focus on my family and focus on the beautiful stuff that was happening in my home that day as opposed to choosing to be sad, to allow my brain to wander to that dark place. And I was able to get through the day."
Yoli has had a strong faith in God ever since she was a little girl. And she says that her ability to get through that day came from him. She prayed a lot, asking for help, and he granted it.
After the holiday, Yoli scheduled an appointment with her primary care physician to begin the process of discovering what the lump in her breast was. She was 31 at the time and had never had a mammogram. But when she called to schedule it, there were no appointments available for two months.
She knew she needed to go, so she advocated for herself and called the doctor back and asked for an appointment that Friday. She wasn't going to take no for an answer. I love her tenacity, and as she says, this was her first lesson in self-advocacy.
When she went for her appointment, there were two techs in the room helping out. But when the head radiologist walked in, she knew something wasn't right. He pointed some things out to her on the screen and told her that he's almost 100% sure she has cancer.
Not having expected to receive any news about what it may be for a few days, Yoli wasn't mentally prepared for this news. She broke down crying and uttered those words I mentioned above, "Oh my gosh. Am I going to die like my mom?"
A few days later, Yoli received an official diagnosis of stage three breast cancer.
As she puts it, this was the beginning of her "cancer storm": "I always hear people say 'cancer journey,' and I kind of laugh It's not a journey because 'journey' sounds like a beautiful adventure. It's a stinking storm. Let's call it a storm."
I agree, Yoli, and I love your honesty in sharing. Let's call it what it is, a cancer storm.
Admitting this sucks
At one point when Yoli was getting ready to start radiation treatment, she was lying on the radiation table being prepped, and she started crying and couldn't stop. When her radiation oncologist saw her crying, he was surprised because she never cried. But he encouraged her to let it all out because what was happening was a good thing.
And so she did. She was tired, she was mad, and for the first time ever, she said out loud how upset she was that she had cancer.
For Yoli, it was a relief to say those words, to say that it sucks, to admit she was mad, to admit that her body was in pain, and to admit she didn't even recognize herself in the mirror anymore. She continued talking it through with her doctor, and by the time she left the appointment, she says she "felt lighter." Sharing her story offered relief.
Even 15 years later, after many appointments and treatments, this one is the one that she still remembers. And she continues to bring it up with her doctor because of how healing it was for her to share exactly what she was feeling.
This, friends, is why sharing our stories is so powerful. You've probably heard me say it before, and you'll definitely hear me say it again, but I'm going to say it anyway. James 5:16 says "confess your faults"--your sins, your struggles, your fears, your anger--"one to another." Because you'll be healed if you do. Sharing brings healing.
Cancer as a teacher
As I mentioned above, Yoli was just ten years old when her mother died of cancer. Yoli remembers her mom being scared but says she was also a Christian woman. And she responded to cancer by praying for others, even the nurses who took care of her in hospice.
She also did what she could to take care of her family. Yoli had seven siblings, and her mother was very transparent about what she was going through and what was going on. She would share with the kids what was happening and what was to come so that they could be informed and not in the dark, wondering.
Yoli describes her mother as a woman of character that was "brave right up until the last day." Even though Yoli was young when her mother died, 35 years later she still looks to her as a role model and reflects on who she was and the beauty she contained.
During her mother's cancer, Yoli's dad worked very hard to keep everything going and to keep food on the table for all seven kids. And because her dad was, and is, a musician, there was always music playing regardless of the circumstances, even in her mom's hospital room.
Music was one of those things that helped Yoli cope then and now, and she admits that finding coping mechanisms is a great thing. "I don't know how I could have survived those years without music, without prayer, without my family. We really leaned on each other."
It's so hard to imagine, but not only did Yoli's mother die of cancer, her sister did as well. One of the things Yoli did for her sister as her sister was going through her own cancer storm was bring her into her home until she passed away. Yoli ended up managing her care, addressing medical needs, making decisions, figuring out insurance, and even being a part of her sister's care planning meetings. She spent time learning how the different agencies communicate with one another when someone has cancer.
This experience taught her a lot, and with the knowledge she gained, she started her own nonprofit called Cancer Kinship which provides resource navigation services that help clients be advocates for themselves and get the services and care they need so they can live longer and healthier lives.
All of these experiences, with her mom, dad, sister, and her own cancer, made Yoli who she is today.
Advice for people who have cancer
While Yoli has a list of things for those who are going through, or know someone going through, cancer (hear more on the podcast), her last piece of advice is one I love. And it's this: serve others. And one way to serve is by sharing your story.
When one cancer patient shares her story with another cancer patient, it becomes mutually beneficial. For the one who's sharing, Yoli says, "There's this catharsis and healing and just being able to share your knowledge, your wisdom, your experience, so that it can help someone." And for the one who is hearing, they can "now visualize what survivorship looks like."
Sharing our stories is a powerful thing.
I encourage you to check out the nonprofit Yoli started, Cancer Kinship. You can also find them on Instagram and Facebook. They're doing so much good work--mentorship, empowerment, assistance--for those going through their own cancer storms. And it was birthed out of the lessons Yoli learned as she weathered the storm of her mom's cancer, sister's cancer, and her own cancer.